In an interview this week Obama admits that he really didn’t have a clue on how the Middle East works:
I’ll be honest with you. A: This is just really hard. Even for a guy like George Mitchell who helped bring about the peace in Northern Ireland. This is as intractable a problem as you get. B: Both sides—I think the Israelis and Palestinians—have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions, or the divisions within their societies were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that. From Abbas’ perspective, he’s got Hamas looking over his shoulder and I think an environment generally within the Arab world that feels impatient with any process.
Really hard?? The hubris is remarkable, isn’t it? One supposes that he imagined all the dolts who preceded him in the Oval Office to just not have been smart enough or him enough to get the job done. It seems as though he “overestimated” the impact of his mere presence on the parties. Really, who knew there were underlying political realities that would render the parties immune to his charms? But there is no sign he’s going to do much, if anything, differently (“we are going to continue to work with both parties to recognize what I think is ultimately their deep-seated interest in a two-state solution”). But now he knows it’s hard.
That’s not the worst of it, however. On Iran he declares:
Both in our engagement strategy, but also now as we move into the other track of a dual-track approach. Which is if they don’t accept the open hand, we’ve got to make sure they understand there are consequences for breaking international rules. It’s going to be tough, but I think the relationship we’ve developed with Russia will be very helpful. The outreach we’ve done to our traditional NATO allies will be very helpful. The work that we’ve done with China—including the work we’ve done with China to enforce sanctions against North Korea—will help us in dealing more effectively with Iran.
No hint of the fact that engagement has been an abject failure, no mention of the opportunity for regime change, and certainly no indication that he has learned that the Iranians don’t want to be engaged. Indeed quite the opposite — we aren’t giving up! Maybe, maybe we can sweet talk the mullahs out of their nukes. And as for any help from China and Russia, does he not read the papers? (Maybe he thinks we don’t.) China and Russia aren’t being helpful.
We all keep waiting for the foreign-policy learning curve to deliver results and for experience to inform Obama’s policies. This sort of interview reveals that such an outcome likely isn’t in the cards. He is, it seems, so fixed in his preconceptions of the word that basic geopolitical realities come as a surprise or disappointment. If only the world worked the way his university-professor pals and George Mitchell told him it would. George W. Bush is gone and he is there — and what has it gotten us? Well, the reputation for irresolution, unreliability, and naiveté. And interviews like this don’t help.